What do tattooed Tel Avivians, teachers tagging children with yellow patches and the IDF’s #WeAreHere campaign all have in common?
Jewish Millennials on Holocaust Memorial Day are in a interesting position – their lives bear little to no resemblance to those who survived the greatest attempt to destroy our people in history: the Holocaust. They are also farther from the tragedy than the children of survivors, who so often carried their parents’ burden. It is their gift and their curse that Millennials receive the Holocaust already dug through and sorted out by the previous generation, handed to them neatly packaged and inscribed with the maxim never forget.
And how could they forget? With all the media saturation – images, novels, films, and documentaries – surrounding the Holocaust, nobody need worry that history will be forgotten. Anne Frank’s diary is mandatory reading in many middle schools; and in Israel, high schools go on trips to Auschwitz, straight to the deranged heart of the murder of Europe’s Jews. We as a society do so much to promote education about the Holocaust, as of course we should. We constantly remind each other, or ourselves, or the winds of time to “never forget.” But do we actually fear forgetting – with all the documentation that exists of the Holocaust, perfectly preserved in museums for all the world to bear witness to our suffering — is that really a concern?
The fear is not that we will forget the history. The fear is that we will forget the feeling. What I mean is the feeling of closeness and connectedness to an event that happened 70 years ago: for that is what we really dread losing when another one of our survivors passes away. Soon, there will be none left. They are our only living link to an atrocity that is inseparable from our past and from our national narrative. Their stories run the risk of becoming fossilized and emotionally forgotten — but many people are admirably fighting the tendency of time to dull the past, even if the methods they use are occasionally controversial.
According to an article in Haaretz, parents complained on Thursday when a kindergarten teacher in Rishon LeTzion stuck yellow Star of David patches on the children’s shirts as part of Holocaust Memorial Day. Another school in Tel Aviv tasked fourth grade children to “write an imaginary dialogue between yourself and a Nazi officer.” Several other schools were found to be in violation of the official rules set for proper memorializing.
Yet with the right explanation, and perhaps reassurance that this was then and not now, activities such as these could succeed in doing what a formal ceremony can never do: namely, strengthening a personal connection between the individual and the Holocaust. Because it could have been us — but it was not. And if we believe that this stunning fact has implications that are worth delving into, we need to search for creative ways to get young Jews and Israelis to grapple with tough questions.
Perhaps these incidents stem from the same impulse as the one that led the IDF to launch the #WeAreHere campaign last Holocaust Memorial Day. The project — which encouraged people to upload selfies they took of themselves with survivors — received plenty of attention but also criticism. There were concerns that the Holocaust was getting too mixed up with social media, and that this would unwittingly trivialize the tragedy. On the other hand, it was sweet and touching to see a survivor next to her granddaughter, an IDF soldier, and to read their stories.
Perhaps the most controversial Holocaust-related phenomenon is that of a descendent of a survivor tattooing a relative’s concentration camp number onto his or her own forearm. This strikes many people as wrong because those tattoos are like battle scars which we haven’t earned. We should be proud of our ancestors’ miraculous survival, and even draw upon their stories for strength — but we are not them. At the same time, the increasing popularity of this tattoo trend suggests that people, and especially Millennials, may be seeking unconventional ways of memorializing because they don’t want the Holocaust to go the way of Pearl Harbor (for example): a long-gone historical event that once meant something, commemorated once a year merely as a matter of courtesy.
So what do these tattooed Tel Avivians, teachers tagging children with yellow patches and the IDF’s #WeAreHere campaign all have in common?
First, an instinctual understanding that routinizing the Holocaust is the fastest way to make it lose its emotional power over us. And a very good intention to keep our hearts from forgetting what happened — even if the follow-through is at times a little clumsy or rubs people the wrong way. A ceremony is the easiest and least controversial route. But as more and more survivors die every day, we need to make sure that their stories breathe new life into each generation to come. Over-identifying with survivors, or re-appropriating Holocaust symbols may be misguided, but keeping the Holocaust at arms’ length isn’t the safe solution — it’s a little cowardly. When the obligatory two-minute siren is over, that’s when the real conversation should begin.
My children will never meet my grandfather, a Holocaust survivor. They will not see the tattoo on his arm, a tattoo that had been a prompt for difficult answers to good questions when I was growing up. Only imagination and conversation will save them from taking a world of protected, strong Jews for granted, and these stories of survival will save them from complacency.